More than 14,000 students stayed home from school on Wednesday, as three more zones moved to the red level of COVID-19 recovery, attendance records show. Two schools in the Saint John region saw more than half of their student body not show up. This data does not include any high school students in two of the anglophone districts because their attendance is recorded on a period-by-period basis. Nor does it include any students at schools in one of the francophone districts, which did not respond to a request for information. The attendance records indicate only that the students were absent from school, not the reasons why. But Anglophone South School District superintendent Zoë Watson suspects the "spike" in absences that saw nearly a quarter of students across her district not attend classes "is most likely correlated to the Red Phase announcement" Tuesday. Premier Blaine Higgs announced the Moncton region, Zone 1, Saint John region, Zone 2, and Fredericton region, Zone 3, would be bumped back to the more restrictive red level from orange, as of midnight Tuesday. The Edmundston region, Zone 4, has been at the red level since midnight Sunday. Earlier that day, Education Minister Dominic Cardy announced K-12 schools will now remain open at the red level, under new guidelines. If a positive case of COVID-19 is confirmed at a school, the school will be closed for a minimum of three days to allow for contact tracing. A petition launched Monday by a mother in Oromocto, calling on the government to revert to the plan to close schools in red zones and move to online learning, has garnered more than 21,000 signatures so far. Public Health reported 21 new cases of COVID-19 In New Brunswick on Wednesday, pushing the total number of active cases in the province to 317. Two people are in hospital, including one in intensive care, and 1,953 people were self-isolating, as of Tuesday afternoon, either because they've tested positive for COVID-19 or been in close contact with a confirmed case. On Wednesday, 5,072 of the 22,282 students enrolled at the 69 schools in the Anglophone South School District, or 23 per cent, were recorded as absent, said Watson. "It is important to remember that this is 'absent,' it could be illness, it could be an appointment (medical/dental)," she said in an emailed statement. But the absenteeism rate did jump from 14 per cent the previous day. "This would be expected," said Watson, "as we have consistently seen a spike in absences, followed by a quick and steady return to normal attendance in the days following each orange phase announcement or, at the school level, notification of a confirmed case at the school." The overall district absenteeism rate Wednesday was actually lower than the 28 per cent the district saw the day following the Saint John region's first move to the orange level, she noted. The highest absenteeism is at schools in the Hampton and Saint John areas, said Watson. "Interesting to note these are the areas where there have been outbreaks." Princess Elizabeth School, which announced a positive case on Tuesday, had the district's highest absenteeism rate Wednesday at 57 per cent. That was actually down from 67 per cent the day before. Belleisle Elementary School, which had an outbreak last weekend, with one confirmed case, had the second highest absenteeism rate at 53 per cent, up from 38 per cent Tuesday. Millidgeville North School, which also had an outbreak last weekend, with one confirmed case, had 40 per cent of students absent on Wednesday, compared to 34 per cent on Tuesday. And Quispamsis Middle School, which had an outbreak on Sunday, climbed slightly to 27 per cent absent Wednesday, from 26 per cent on Tuesday Attendance has been stronger in the St. Stephen-St. George area, where there have been no outbreaks, said Watson. The absence rate at St. Stephen Elementary School on Wednesday, for example, was 14 per cent, St. Stephen Middle School, 15 per cent, and St. George Elementary School, 15 per cent. Anglophone East sees nearly 23% absent In the Anglophone East School District, nearly 23 per cent of its K-8 students — 2,521 of 11,030 — were absent Wednesday. This excludes students from Edith Cavell School and the Grade 6-8 students at Caledonia Regional High School who were home learning, the records show. The attendance of high school students is not included. "We could not pull the high school data because that is done on a period by period case," said spokesperson Stephanie Patterson. The district continues to work closely with Public Health and the Department of Education "to do our best in ensuring your safety, health, and well-being," superintendent Gregg Ingersoll said in an email to families Tuesday night after the move to red was announced. He encouraged all families to be "more diligent than ever" with wearing masks, hand-washing, and social distancing. "These actions can make a major impact on keeping our schools, children, and communities safe," he said. 18% absent in Anglophone West The absenteeism rate in the Anglophone West School District Wednesday was 18 per cent — 3,939 of 21,822. That's up about six per cent from Tuesday, "despite the enhanced safety measures," said spokesperson Jennifer Read. "We have seen a trend in decreased attendance on the first day of a new COVID-19 related announcement, for example a confirmed case in a school or an alert level change, which is then followed by a gradual increase in attendance in the following days," she said in an emailed statement. "We are hopeful that parents will continue to send their children to school and have confidence knowing that their children are in a supervised environment with strict health and safety protocols in place. "Our students and staff have done an exceptional job following directives and staying safe." Absenteeism in Anglophone North at 13% In the Anglophone North School District, 13 per cent of its K-8 students — 553 of 4,099 — didn't make it to classes Wednesday. Grades 9-12 are not included because they have attendance taken by period and not the entire day, said spokesperson Meredith Caissie. At least two of the four schools the district has in the red alert level of Zone 1, in the Rexton area, "witnessed a significant increase in absenteeism," said superintendent Mark Donovan. These include Eleanor W. Graham Middle School (40 per cent) and Rexton Elementary School (37 per cent). "This is consistent with what we have seen provincially, over the past five months, when schools and/or regions have seen spikes in COVID-19 case counts or have gone back a phase in the recovery plan," said Donovan. "It is important to remind all stakeholders that when schools are open, they are safe places for both students and staff," he said. The district will continue to work with the Department of Education and Public Health to ensure that safety remains its "highest priority," he added. 8% of Francophone South students no-shows The Francophone South School District saw an absenteeism rate of eight per cent Wednesday — 1,280 of 15325 students. That's up from six per cent on both Tuesday and Monday, before the move to red, the records show. "In these circumstances, the figures are positive and show a good level of commitment from our students and families," said superintendent Monique Boudreau. The district supports the government's decision to keep schools open at the red level, she said, noting there have been "very few" reported transmissions of COVID-19 in the province's schools and none in the district. Attending school has many benefits for students, not only in terms of learning, but also in terms of their well-being. - Monique Boudreau, Francophone South "This proves the effectiveness of health measures put in place and well respected by students and staff," Boudreau said in an emailed statement. "We understand that this transition to the Red level may be a concern for some people, but it is important to remind parents and students that schools are safe. In addition, attending school has many benefits for students, not only in terms of learning, but also in terms of their well-being." If school closures become necessary, the district will follow Public Health recommendations and do everything it can to promote successful learning at home, she added. Francophone Northeast absenteeism around 12% The absenteeism rate at schools across the Francophone Northeast School District on Wednesday was around 12 per cent, said spokesperson Ian-Guillaume DesRoches. That's about 1,050 of the 8,755 students enrolled. "It is similar to a normal absenteeism rate in the winter season," he said in an email. The rate among schools in the red-level Restigouche area ranged between 10 and 15 per cent, said DesRoches. "We aren't observing a dramatic surge like in October," he said. District general director Marc Pelletier acknowledged the government's decision to keep schools open at the red level did take the district "a bit by surprise." "We are aware that the decision was a bit last minute, but when you take into account the volatile context of the pandemic, decisions must be made to ensure the safety of all," he said in an emailed statement. The district is confident the schools are safe and that they can ensure the safety of their students and staff members due to the strict health and safety protocols in their operational plans, said Pelletier. The COVID-19 situation currently appears stable across the district, including the three schools affected over the past two weeks, he said. "We anticipate that our students who had to continue their learning from home will be coming back to the classroom next Monday." Francophone Northwest School District spokesperson Denise Laplante did not respond to a request for information.